What do Christopher Columbus, Vasco da Gama and Francisco Pizarro have in common? Apart from their status as European countrymen, it was the fortuitous confluence of guns, microbes and steel technology which all but ensured their success at colonizing regions occupied by peoples who lacked such historical fulcrums. It should be unsurprising, given this lethal mixture of offense, why invading states comprised of so few have been able to conquer, kill or otherwise displace indigenous societies comprised of so many. These asymmetrical collisions suffuse human history, and it’s no secret that its retelling lends specific favor to Eurasian societies rather than those of other landmasses.
In Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, Jared Diamond, author of The Third Chimpanzee, seeks to answer why history unfolded so differently among the various continents. Not contented with the proximate explanations listed above, Diamond forages deeper to uncover the ultimate explanations of why some societies procured that fateful triumvirate of factors and why others did not. Explicitly then, why does history record Francisco Pizarro and his confederates storming the Incan Empire and capturing Emperor Atahuallpa in that momentous 1532 collision at Cajamarca instead of Atahuallpa and his band of warriors sailing east, assaulting the Spanish Empire and seizing King Charles I? Which initial conditions facilitated the depopulation of so much of the New World by so few of the Old World?
Traditional solutions to these questions often involve genetic or innate differences in race and intelligence among disparate populations, and it is these traditional explanations which Diamond hopes to sweep away. With a starting point of the tail end of the last ice age circa 13,000 years ago, Diamond takes a holistic approach to deconstructing the broad patterns of history. This is no picnic of a task. As Diamond himself points out, compressing 13,000 years of nuanced history into roughly 400 pages works out to “an average of about one page per continent per 150 years, making brevity and simplification inevitable” (408).
To Diamond’s great credit, Guns, Germs, and Steel represents the metamorphosis of a topic of impenetrable scope into a cohesive, persuasive and not overly prolix piece of historical literature. He begins by surveying the natural differences among the continents, noting the variations in ecological and biological diversity as well as the orientations of the main axes of the continents, all of which had deep import for the evolution of complex human societies, namely the divergence of larger food-producing cultures from smaller bands of hunter-gatherers.
As it turns out, the last ice age played a significant role in the course of this progression. Compared with all other natural disasters, ice ages tend to have the most severe and lasting effects on the planet, dramatically disrupting not only climate but the chain of animal and plant life struggling to survive there. The Pleistocene ice age drove countless of the planet’s large mammals to extinction, especially those indigenous to North America and Australia. Europe and Asia, on the other hand, suffered fewer local extinction events of their large animal species. This outcome presented more options (a full thirteen of the major fourteen domestic mammals were confined to Eurasia) for animal domestication, defined as the regulation of an animal’s breeding and food supply.
Of equal importance is the inequality of wild plant species distributed across the global landscape. Here again, Eurasia is lopsidedly advantaged in terms of ecological and topographical diversity. Home to the greatest seasonal variation as well as the largest zones of temperate Mediterranean climate, Eurasia is saturated with the most diverse plant life.
Diamond discusses in detail the cultural shift from hunting and gathering to food-producing, emphasizing that it was a gradual process. In those environmentally amenable regions of the globe, crop farming and pastoralism offered several benefits over the hunter-gatherer lifestyle – primarily related to time, effort and payout – and precipitated an incremental transition from complete dependence on wild foods to a diet mainly supported by agriculture. Peoples inhabiting less fortunate regions of the globe either carried on as nomadic hunter-gatherers or were displaced by invading farmers. Australia is perhaps the best example: as the most infertile and biologically most impoverished of the continents, it contained the largest population of hunter-gatherers into the modern era.
For all of its benefits, the advent of agriculture around 8500 BC sponsored the most pestilential of side effects: increased human exposure to deadly microbes living inside domesticated animals and plants. Food-producing societies evolved resistances to these pathogens over time, or they were wiped out. First contact with foreign germs can upset the balance of a society more than any other contributing factor, and this is exactly what happened when colonizing agricultural societies encountered natives who did not share their immunities. This was, in fact, the most important factor for each of the major collisions throughout history, including the fall of the millions-strong Aztec Empire by Cortes and his mere 600 men, as well as the greatest population shift in all of human history: the initial 20 million North American Indian peoples being reduced by 95% in a matter of a century as a result of European conquest. In terms of their contribution to human depopulation, germs should clearly precede both guns and steel in the book’s title.
To illustrate the tangential benefits of food production, Diamond enlists the reader on a voyage of deductive reasoning to link the various positive feedback loops, as he calls them. In highly paraphrased form, it is laid out as follows. Whereas the hunter-gatherer existence was nomadic, food production gave rise to more sedentary societies. This, combined with the fact that farming created food surpluses, provided for denser human populations. With increases in human densities came greater variety of roles to be filled within the community, facilitating the appearance of social hierarchy and political structure. At the same time, a more sedentary existence meant more time could be devoted to innovation, and the denser populations meant more people who could potentially craft new metal tools, invent writing systems, and pioneer other technological leaps. This low-res snapshot can hardly do justice to the detail with which Diamond presents the material.
In this way, food production served as a springboard for human innovation, which then radiated out to surrounding populations. To Eurasia’s benefit again, it is the landmass with the most navigable terrain, easing the spread of agricultural and technological developments.
Diamond traces the patterns of history by connecting dominant cultures to the largest environmental palettes of domesticable biota and to the regions most congenial to technological diffusion. Thus while literacy, political organization, firearms, advanced ship technology, and infectious disease are the proximate causes of Pizarro’s overthrow of the Incan Empire, Vasco da Gama’s success in East Africa, and of countless other population shifts throughout history, Diamond insists it was their ancestors’ enduring success in cultivating the local flora and fauna which sits at the bedrock of history’s narrative.
As is the case with any work of this breadth, any implied monolithic pattern is fraught with qualification. Diamond is careful to mention caveats throughout, such as some of the exceptions involved with homogenizing Eurasia into a unified landmass. He notes that food production should not be synonymous with monotonic progress in any one category, referencing the Japanese injunction against firearms and China’s decommission of its maritime fleet in past centuries. The many nuances cited throughout are a testament to Diamond’s attention to detail and responsible professionalism.
One of the most fascinating gifts of history is found in the interactions among past peoples and the ripple effects of those interactions. Guns, Germs, and Steel sits above the vault of human history, providing first-stage explanations to account for its winners and losers. To a great extent, it furnishes a new hermeneutical lens by which to view history, or at the very least a soak test for assessing historical anecdotes. While Diamond was not the first to connect environmental factors to ruling states, Guns, Germs, and Steel is one of the greatest syntheses of the encompassing subject matter compiled to date. He debunks with crack empiricism the alternative, largely racist, hypotheses for history’s manifest imbalance of power, leaving a well-reasoned case in their stead.
I can only add to the avalanche of praise that has been directed toward this book. It is an academic read, to be sure, but I found it optimally dense so as not to turn away readers less interested in every detail. Some have dispraised Diamond’s repetition of common themes, but I personally found this helpful as it allowed the material to ossify more easily in my mind. The book also serves as a model of scientific rigor, as each chapter is fastidiously referenced in the ending bibliography. Guns, Germs, and Steel has forever changed the way I view history and even modern society. If I had my say, this would be standard high school reading across the country. This makes the short list of books which demand to be read at least once. Polymathic in scope, unwavering in its cogency, Diamond has penned a major contribution to our historical understanding which has stood the test of time. I only wished I had read it sooner.
Feature image courtesy of franciscopizarro.org